Furious, Glorious: OFF Festival reviewed

From SIKSA to PJ Harvey, Silver Apples to Thee Oh Sees, Julian Marszalek revels in the righteous anger and the sense of joy at Poland's OFF Festival.


If you really want to get into the heartbeat of any nation, then the last place you’re going to look for a shining example is its politicians. This is especially pertinent if you’re British. The talk of last summer’s OFF Festival was centred around the stunning Brexit result, a decision that’s still reverberating around the continent like a bizarre death knell.

Broadly speaking, the British have been widely regarded by their European cousins as an eccentric friend, the kind of person who’s always going to bring something quirky, fun and off-the-wall to any party. This time, however, it looked like that off-kilter friend had downed the contents of the punch bowl, swallowed the evening’s stash and had decided that driving home off the edge of a cliff top was a really good idea. Of course, that’s all thanks to the actions of a small class of people determined to persue power for its own sake rather than actually trying to make people’s lives any better.

In this respect, Poland is no different. A glimpse at their ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) – a rightwing, populist, national-conservative and Christian organisation – would have you erroneously judging an entire nation if you were that way inclined. But scratch below the surface and the picture changes radically, and for the better.

As a festival, OFF has always proved a refreshing change from the usual run-of-the-mill gatherings that blot the cultural landscape, especially in the UK. This is an event not much concerned with buzz bands and rites of passage, and one with a sharp focus on how music is developing and presenting itself. Its three days have us experiencing the new, the different and the pioneering from across the globe. But what is immediately apparent with the 2017 edition is that domestic acts are appearing higher up the bill than ever before and that, more than any other festival in Europe, the gender split recognises how the population of the world is actually made up. Refreshingly, this isn’t the result of tokenism but an understanding that talent isn’t limited to one group of people.

Not that this is to suggest that everything you’ll see at the OFF Festival is unreservedly wonderful. On Friday night New York’s The Men on the Forest Stage cancel themselves out thanks to a wildly careening set that encompasses punk rock, free jazz and country twanging, while the bafflingly touted Ulrika Spacek are only as good other people’s ideas allow them to be. Worst of all is a hilariously awful set from Royal Trux which sounds like little more than an intoxicated jam session. It’s experimental in the same way you might cut up some dead bodies, stitch them back together again and then expect something to happen.

Circuit Des Yeux

Of course, there are always surprises. Shellac’s turn on the City Of Music Stage is too full of rock and not enough roll and their dedication to precision comes across as too cold to truly engage. A quick walk over to the Trójka Stage reveals a truly mesmerising set of electronic warmth and beguilement from Helada Negro who is nothing less than compelling throughout. And the fact that he’s got two slow-moving dancers completely covered in tinsel simply adds to the magic. Elsewhere, BEAK>’s West Country variant of kosmische music is a head-nodding joy.

What’s also in evidence through the weekend is the number of bands fuelled by degrees of righteous anger. As ever, the results are variable. The classic rock of Sheer Mag, for example, feels way too studied and clichéd to truly convince, but the fury that rages at the heart of Idles is unmistakable. Their performance at the Trójka Stage is one of those festival events that will be spoken of for some time to come. They don’t so much play as combust into a white-hot blast of sonic energy that sees the entire audience from front to back and side to side explode into a seething mass of dancing catharsis. Frontman Joe Talbot goes crowdsurfing towards the end of the set – he’s carried out from the big top and isn’t seen again.

But for genuine fury, anger and rage, there’s only one act that truly articulates the seething resentment felt by a generation in the face of oppressive ideas, concepts and policies. SIKSA are an uncompromising duo of vocalist Alex and bassist Piotr and such is the devastating effect of their Saturday afternoon performance on the Forest Stage that debate continues well into the weekend as to what we have just witnessed.

Their set up is fairly straightforward. Piotr, resplendent in a shiny tracksuit and playing discordant fuzz bass, is the bedrock for singer Alex who, togged out like a cheerleader in Poland’s national colours, then rails and rants against just about every form of institutionalised oppression you can think of. Her delivery is utterly relentless and nothing is off-limits. Racism, homophobia, sexism, political institutions are all in her crosshairs and all systematically targeted and blasted.

This is something akin to performance art and less to do with music, and that matters not a jot. Gloriously provocative, Alex doesn’t limit herself to the stage. Leaping off, she wanders around a confused audience and screams in their faces. “Women are Poland’s real revolutionaries!” she shouts at one point before launching into a scathing mockery of marriage. Leaning on the stage barrier, she yells mercilessly into the face of one seemingly immobile audience member. He’s trying to keep his cool in the face of some extreme provocation, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that he’s screaming back on the inside.

And still those tirades continue. Jumping back in the stage, Alex runs in wide circles and trips herself up at the completion of each circuit. Each falls becomes increasingly more violent until she finally breaks down, tears streaming down her face and screaming in inchoate rage. This is a genuinely uncomfortable performance to witness, an example of provocation in the face of complacency and while the audience recovers from a metaphorical slap in the face, one suspects that Alex’s emotional wounds, here rubbed so publicly raw and drawn out from deep within her psyche, will take longer to recover.

It’s undoubtedly the most extreme example of righteous fury displayed across the weekend. Others may not take the same route but it doesn’t lessen the effect. PJ Harvey’s set is still weighted towards Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project and is tempered in its latter stages by older cuts such as ‘Down By The Water’ and ‘To Bring You My Love’. The somewhat dark balladry of Circuit des Yeux, fronted by the low voice and intricate guitar playing of Haley Fohr, makes for a compelling Sunday afternoon.

PJ Harvey

But it would be misleading to suggest that this year’s OFF Festival is fuelled purely by commentary and disquiet. It’s good to see Polish acts taking a more prominent placing on the bill and again, this is down to talent more than any other factors. Trupa Trupa’s almost surreal twists and turns on the City Of Music Stage suggest that their forthcoming album, Jolly New Songs, will build on the foundations laid down by its predecessor, Headache. Over at the Trójka Stage, the post-rock waves of Spoiwo are marvellously hypnotic.

Of the veterans on display at the OFF Festival, Silver Apples’ 79-year-old Simeon Coxe draws the kind of deep love and appreciation that so many bands crave but so few attain. It’s must be especially gratifying for him given that the audience who have chosen his pioneering beeps, bleeps and beats over PJ Harvey in the City Of Music Stage where unlikely to have been born when ‘To Give You My Love’ was released.

There always has been and always will be a sense of fun running throughout the OFF Festival. Sierra Leone’s Janka Nabay And The Bubu Gang effervescent rhythms and unrestrained sense of joy delivers on the needs of a Saturday and the heaving and smiling crowds at the Experimental Stage are bouncing and jumping as one. But for total and utter entertainment, Thee Oh Sees are pretty much unbeatable. The twin-drum attack is a relentless onslaught and one that’s aimed squarely at the feet. John Dwyer may lose points for holding his guitar at a nipple-warming height but their slot on the Forest Stage is pure rock & roll. There are always those naysayers who’ll tell you that guitars are over but as evidenced by the plumes of dust kicked up by frenzied dancers and hanging over their heads like an ominous cloud, that message hasn’t been received or understood.

What OFF Festival 2017 proves so conclusively this year is that the hunger for knowledge of other cultures, forms of musical expression and mixing with people from all over the world is far from satisfied. There’s so much to see, hear and learn in just the short space of time that we’re given and it’s being done by flying in the face of the short-sighted bigots and bullies who are trying to dominate the over-arching narrative. This is a one-of-a-kind event and British music fans are well advised to check it out while they can, before they get tied up in preventative red tape. This is music and art as the pulse of a species and the underlying prognosis is good. Some might even say hopeful.

Photographs by Jan Rijk at Dutchpix.com

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